Do you need a cup of coffee in the morning to kick start your day and another cup midmorning? Do you have trouble concentrating after lunch or often skip socializing in the evening because you're “too worn out”? Do you blame your lack of “oomph” on your busy schedule or do you assume this is just part of the natural aging process? Think again. While fatigue is one of the most common health complaints, the answer to waning energy could be as simple as your diet.
Q: What is the most important diet trick for staying energized?
Avoid the quick fixes: caffeine and sugar. While coffee and sweets give you a pick-me-up, in the long term coffee, colas and sugary foods are likely to produce a “high” followed by a crash.
One or two cups of coffee help some people work more efficiently, think faster, stay alert and concentrate better. But, when consumed in excess, coffee is a double-edged sword. The initial high is followed by mild withdrawal symptoms, including fatigue. A vicious cycle can result when you drink more coffee to prevent the inevitable letdown. Instead, cut back or eliminate caffeine, switch from regular to instant or an instant blended with chicory, or blend regular coffee with decaffeinated before brewing.
A midmorning sugar snack can send some people on a blood sugar roller coaster that leads to fatigue. For example, researchers at Kansas State University measured mood in 120 women who drank 12 ounces of water or beverages sweetened with either aspartame (NutraSweet) or sugar. After 30 minutes, the women who drank the sugar-sweetened beverage were the drowsiest. Research from the University of South Alabama in Mobile found that up to 50 percent of people experiencing depression report improvements in energy levels within a week of eliminating sugar and/or caffeine.
Q: Why do sweets bring you down?
For one thing, unlike starch, which slowly releases carb units, called glucose, into the blood, sugar dumps rapidly into the bloodstream, causing a dramatic rise in blood sugar. To counteract this rise, the pancreas quickly releases the hormone insulin, which hustles excess sugar from the blood into the cells. Consequently, blood sugar drops, often to levels lower than before the snack. Sugar also triggers the release of the brain chemical serotonin that can make you feel drowsy within an hour or two after the snack.
Finally, people who snack on sweets are likely to consume inadequate amounts of energizing nutrients such as vitamin C, the B vitamins, magnesium, potassium and zinc.
Q: What can we snack on instead of sweets?
Rather than feed your fatigue, snack defensively. Choose nutrient-packed, time-released carbohydrates, such as whole-grain crackers or bread sticks with low-fat cheese, fresh fruit, yogurt, low-fat granola such as Oat Cuisine’s, air-popped popcorn for between-meal snacks, two Whole Grain Fig Newtons with a glass of milk, or frozen blueberries.
Q: You also say that iron can be a cause of fatigue, at least for women, right?
If your energy level is in perpetual low gear, your problem could be iron. While only 8 percent of women are anemic, as many as 80 percent of active and 20 percent of premenopausal women in general are iron deficient. Iron deficiency goes unnoticed in many cases because routine blood tests, such as the hemoglobin and hematocrit tests, screen only for anemia, which is the final stage of iron deficiency. For months before the onset of anemia, the tissue stores of iron are drained. The result is fatigue, poor exercise performance and a host of energy-related problems.
The solution is simple: Just include lots of iron-rich foods in your diet and take a moderate-dose iron supplement.
Q: How do you know if you’re low in iron?
A blood test that includes serum ferritin is the most sensitive indicator of tissue iron levels. A serum ferritin value below 20mcg/L is a red flag for iron deficiency. A moderate-dose supplement and iron-rich foods will boost lagging iron stores. Also add a vitamin-C-rich food to each meal (e.g., orange juice), combine small amounts of lean meat with plant foods (spaghetti with meatballs or split pea soup with ham), cook in cast iron, and avoid drinking tea and coffee with meals, since these beverages contain tannins that reduce iron absorption.
Q: What else can we do to energize ourselves?
Eat breakfast. People who skip breakfast struggle more with weight problems and low energy later in the day than do people who take time to eat. If you are a seasoned breakfast avoider, start eating breakfast, even if you aren't hungry. It takes two to three weeks to reset the appetite clock. After that you should notice a boost in energy and fewer problems with overeating later in the day.
Q: What will an energizing breakfast look like?
Avoid high-sugar breakfasts, such as doughnuts and coffee, that provide an initial energy boost but leave you drowsy within a few hours. In contrast, meals with a mix of protein and high-quality grains maintain blood sugar and energy levels throughout the morning. Follow the 1,2,3 rule: 1) a protein, 2) a whole grain and 3) one or more fruits and vegetables.
Examples of good-start breakfasts:
- Toasted frozen whole-wheat waffle topped with fat-free sour cream and fresh blueberries.
- Flour tortilla filled with cottage cheese and fresh fruit, warmed in the microwave.
- Low-fat whole-wheat bran muffin with applesauce and yogurt.
- Bowl of Nutrigrain, Shredded Wheat or GrapeNuts with low-fat milk and fresh fruit.
Q: What should we eat at lunch to stay energized?
First, keep lunch light. A low-fat midday meal that supplies 500 calories improves afternoon alertness, while either fasting or eating a high-calorie midday meal can leave you tired and unable to concentrate.
Second, any carbohydrate — from bread to dessert — raises levels of a brain chemical called serotonin, which in turn makes you drowsy. Consequently, the time of day you chow down on carbs could affect your energy level; you may feel relaxed after a carbohydrate-rich dinner of Chinese vegetables and rice, but the same meal at lunch could make you sluggish. In contrast, a meal that contains some protein triggers the release of norepinephrine, a brain chemical that provides an energy and mood lift.
So, to maximize the fuel from carbohydrates while providing a sustained lift from protein, combine a little chicken, legumes, fish or extra-lean meat with lots of whole grains, vegetables and fruit.
Some good lunch ideas:
- Two whole-wheat tortillas filled with shredded carrots, zucchini, fat-free refried beans and salsa. Serve with low-fat milk and fruit.
- Large tossed salad topped with grilled chicken slices. Serve with a slice of French bread and glass of nonfat milk.
- A cup of vegetable soup and a grilled cheese sandwich on whole-wheat bread. Serve with sliced tomatoes and orange juice.
- A tuna sandwich on rye bread with sliced cucumbers. Serve with fresh fruit and low-fat milk.
Q: Snacks also can keep us energized, if we choose the right ones. Can you give us some examples of energizing snacks?
Think of snacks as quick-fix mini-meals. They should include fruit, whole grains, lean protein and other real foods, not junk.
- Fresh fruit and nonfat milk smoothie
- Dried fruit and nuts, such as a small handful of Sahale Snacks nut blends (Sing Buri, Dauphine, Ksar or Socorro blends are all good)
- One-half honeydew melon filled with nonfat, plain yogurt
- One-half papaya filled with fat-free cottage cheese
- Baby carrots dunked in peanut butter
- Red pepper slices, whole-wheat pita wedges and hummus dip
Q: Is water important to energy?
Staying hydrated is critical to your energy level. The first sign of dehydration is fatigue. Eight glasses a day is a start. You need more if you work out vigorously or in hot climates.
The 10 energizers
Do you work with or against your energy level? “Yes” answers are energy boosters, while “no” answers are energy drainers.
1. Do you eat at least five small meals and snacks throughout the day, including breakfast? (Eating every four hours provides a steady supply of fuel to sustain a high energy level.)
2. Do you consume at least 2,000 calories each day of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk products and other nutrient-packed foods? (Too few calories means too little fuel and nutrients, which can leave you drowsy.)
3. Do you avoid overeating in the evening?
4. Do you limit caffeinated beverages to three five-ounce servings or less each day?
5. Do you limit sugar intake and only eat small amounts of sugary foods with a meal?
6. Do you drink at least six glasses of water each day? (Chronic low fluid intake can result in mild dehydration and fatigue.)
7. Do you avoid quick-weight-loss diets and never yo-yo diet? (Not eating enough, and therefore not supplying the body with ample fuel, is a common cause of fatigue.)
8. Do you take time each day to relax and enjoy life?
9. Do you include moderate exercise in your daily routine?
10. Do you get enough restful sleep each night?